The Texans played one of their best games of the year against Oakland, an effort led by a pair of whirlwind pass-rushers in Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. For any shot to win, both defenders must duplicate that effort against a Patriots offensive line that is thriving under trusted assistant Dante Scarnecchia.
This time around, the nearly perfect Tom Brady is under center for an attack that ripped through all comers as the NFL's No. 2 scoring operation since his return in Week 5. Rolling into January with the league's top point differential (+191), the Patriots are robotically efficient and led by the greatest quarterback of our lifetime.
Brock Osweiler, Texans quarterback: If Tom Brady were to throw a pick on each of his next 35 passes, he would still have a higher passer rating than Osweiler, per NFL Research. Still, Houston's "starting" passer finally put together a relatively clean performance against Oakland. It was encouraging to see Osweiler display chemistry with wideout DeAndre Hopkins in that game, but that won't be so easy against New England's No. 1 scoring defense, a surging unit that has held 11 of their past 14 opponents under 20 points. Finishing the year 27th in completion percentage, 29th in passer rating and dead-last in yards per attempt, Osweiler is doing more than trying to win an impossible playoff game: He's fighting for his future in Houston.
Patriots offensive line (sort of): Is anyone really under pressure in New England? Still, Houston rides into Gillette with one of the league's most fascinating gang of pass rushers -- even without All-Pro J.J. Watt on the field. Clowney's box score doesn't come close to describing the utter havoc he unleashed on Oakland's O-line last week. The former No. 1 overall pick put on a clinic from wire-to-wire, bull-rushing blockers, blowing up shotgun runs, tipping multiple passes -- and catching one himself for a game-altering pick of cowed Raiders passer Connor Cook. By game's end, though, the Raiders were equally whipped by Whitney Mercilus, who eventually drew double-teams of his own after notching two bone-crushing sacks. Still, Scarnecchia -- Belichick's long-time trusted aide -- could morph Kate Winslet, Adele, Scarlett Johansson and the Obama daughters into a functioning front five. If Houston can't get to Brady, the Texans are toast.
Matchups to watch
Patriots RB Dion Lewis vs. Houston's front seven: After bringing him along slowly, the Patriots have given Lewis a generous 45 carries over the past three games. With Clowney operating as a run-stuffing nightmare, New England will try to get Lewis involved in space to counter Houston's pass rush. Fellow back LeGarrette Blount always has a place in the game-plan, but Saturday night could double as a showcase showdown for New England's electric scatback.
Patriots pass-catchers vs. Houston's secondary: Only the Jets, Browns and Rams scored fewer points this season than Houston. The Texans have the potential to be utterly blown away in this affair if they can't keep a lid on New England's offense. No easy task with Julian Edelman surging down the stretch and the newly added Michael Floyd giving the Patriots a downfield threat they lacked. Brady would be wise to play keep-away from A.J. Bouye, the emergent Texans cover man who rattled the Raiders with a pick and four passes defensed, but New England won't shy away from anyone. This is a Patriots offense that committed zero turnovers in six of their last seven games and threw just two picks as a club all season -- the fewest by any team since 1940.
Forgive me, Texans fans. I'd like to see a close game Saturday night, but the Patriots currently ride as a seek-and-destroy outfit. Barring Brady being knocked out of the game, New England is too well-coached, too versatile and too much like a flock of killer robots to stumble at home against a team led by one of the worst quarterbacks in football. Someone in this office will be writing an AFC title game preview a week from now -- and it will star the high-flying Patriots. As always.